Two offseasons ago, the normally low-spending Cleveland Indians shocked the baseball world when they broke the bank on a pair of high-priced free agents.
A team loaded, with good, young talent the Tribe decided it was a couple of good, veteran players away from being a postseason contender. This was right on the heels of hiring veteran, World Series-winning manager Terry Francona to help guide a youthful group.
Cleveland gave a combined, guaranteed $104 million to outfielder Michael Bourn and outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher. It was a lot of money. However, the two were highly respected veterans with playoff experience.
Neither Bourn or Swisher were considered great players, but rather in the good-to-very-good range. Being a smaller market, without the flare of some other cities, Cleveland likely had to over pay to get the duo to join Francona and a blossoming roster.
Still, the Indians seemed to be adding one of the top leadoff hitters in the game in Bourn and a solid power hitter in Swisher. Bourn came to Cleveland off a 42-steal season. Twice he had swiped 61 bags. He was to be a sorely-needed top-of-the-order catalyst.
Swisher, while no Albert Pujols, was a guy who had knocked 20 or more homers from 2005-2012 and knocked in more than 80 runners from 2009-2012. The Ohio native and former Ohio State University standout was set to become a face of the franchise.
In the two seasons since, things have not exactly gone as planned. Bourn has struggled through hamstring injuries, which is never a good thing for a guy who relies on his legs. Swisher may have pressed his first season in front of the home crowd and as the main man in a lineup rather than being just another guy as he had been with the Yankees. Despite 22 bombs, he never really got going until the September push that got the team to the 2013 Wild Card. Last year, Swisher was off to a horrible start before having the second half of the season wiped out with injuries.
The would-be veteran leaders now are facing a bit of a crossroads, as are the Indians. This coming season will be an important year for all involved.
Swisher and Bourn could use rebound seasons, simply for themselves. The 2017 seasons are vesting option years, meaning they both could be back on the market as soon as the 2016 season is over. Right now, neither would get much more than a year around the veteran minimum.
For Swisher, you know he would love to perform as advertised for a city he was excited to go to just two offseasons ago.
Both players having something to prove – namely that they have something left in the tank and something to offer a team with playoff aspirations.
For the Indians, getting some sort of return on their large investment would be a blessing. Swisher’s 30 homers and Bourn’s 33 steals since joining Cleveland are not nearly what anyone expected.
That the Tribe got to the Wild Card game in 2013 was more a testament to Francona and the growth of the younger players and pitching staff than to the free agency bonanza. Swisher had his good moments that year, but only batted .249 with with 63 RBI – not the No. 4 or 5 hitter numbers the Indians had pegged for him. Bourn, in that first season had 23 steal while being caught 12 times.
The 2014 season was pretty much a lost year for both players. Bourn played 106 games, while Swisher played 97 as injuries really took a toll on both. Cleveland still entered the season’s final weekend with faint postseason hopes alive.
If the Indians are to take the next step toward true contention they will need Swisher and Bourn healthy and performing to their career standards. Bourn, at 32, and Swisher, at 34, are not old. Solid seasons at this point in their careers are not impossible to fathom.
If Bourn and Swisher could start earning their money as the big-time players they were projected to be, it would certainly help a Cleveland offense that sagged at times last year. The Tribe’s pitching, especially in the second half of 2014, may have been stellar enough to do some damage in the postseason. The Indians were shut out of October baseball thanks to an offense that stagnated at times.
Cleveland is in a spot where it spent the last couple years locking players into long-term deals. Because of that, there is not a lot of room on the roster to add free agents – even if money were no object.
The Tribe’s best route to getting over the Wild Card hump and playing more postseason baseball than the one game the team has had in the last two years is getting everyone healthy and back on track.
A return to health for guys like Kipnis and David Murphy, who had oblique injuries last year, would be helpful. The biggest help would be Swisher and Bourn getting themselves righted and giving Cleveland’s offense the shot in the arm everyone thought they would give it two years ago. It would late in coming, but would certainly be welcome to an Indians squad that is hoping to again play meaningful ball late in the year.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images